Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dave Critiques - The Witness: Does your first playthrough really matter?


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of The Witness. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

So let’s start with what I think are the easier questions to answer before I get to what I want to talk about, although it all sort of intertwines. Why is the game called The Witness? There’s a concept in eastern philosophy that I discovered through personal readings of Buddhism and meditation. It’s the idea of witnessing your own thoughts. A simple way to put it would be if someone says something that makes you angry, instead of being consumed by the emotion of anger, you are able to detach yourself from that emotion and think “I am feeling angry”. You’re not rejecting the anger, but you’re choosing to distance yourself from it. By doing so, the anger will pass more easily, and you can then choose to react to the situation in a calmer state of mind. That’s my level of understanding at least. Like a lot of philosophy, the rabbit hole goes deep. For instance, another aspect of witnessing is the following. Start a line of thought in your head. Maybe you’re thinking about what I’m saying and your reactions to it, or maybe your mind has wandered and you’re thinking about what happened at work today or what you’re going to eat a little later. Now, with that thought, who is voicing that thought in your head, and who is listening to it? They’re both your mind, but there is more than one aspect to your consciousness, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to engage in internal dialogue, or even be able to observe your thoughts as you have them. The trick again as I understand it, is to be the witness as much as possible. This is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. It’s as difficult as clearing your mind of thoughts during meditation. After years of meditating, such a state is still a very rare occurrence for me, but the idea is to try and reach that state… but then again you shouldn’t be trying to reach that state. It’s all a bit complicated.

So why is the game called The Witness? If you uncovered what’s known as the developer ending, you will have entered what looks to be a resort hotel that suggests the whole island and its puzzles are a virtual reality retreat. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the island might be a getaway to encourage and facilitate the witnessing state of mind in those that visit. This is somewhat reinforced by the video at the end where either a tourist, or more likely one of the developers or testers (or possibly even creator Jonathan Blow himself) exit back into the real world and have trouble distinguishing reality from the perspectives they’ve learned to experience on the island. While typing this the idea came to me that perhaps also this video is a metaphor for Blow waking up to the real world after working on this game for so many years, and not being able to adjust back. I think anyone who’s undertaken a large project can relate to that feeling. This sort of segue ways into the more traditional ending; when you enter Willy Wonka’s glass elevator and the whole island resets. You see, the point is not in completing the game at all (resetting the game so you can access the developer ending aside), and that’s why the island resets. It’s all about the moment to moment. That satisfaction you feel when activating the elevator slowly fades away as you realise that the island is resetting. Nothing is permanent, and you should not expect it to be. You should enjoy that feeling when it happens, and not worry that your progress is being undone, because the progress was not important in the first place.

My reliance on a walkthrough for much of this game was quite different than other games. It has to do with how the puzzles work. Each puzzle really has two parts to it. First is the code, or what could be called the rules. Do you understand what the puzzle is asking of you? If the answer is “yes”, then the next step is in solving it. Because the island is open to you from the start, the game encourages exploration. If you haven’t seen these symbols on a panel before, you can certainly see if you can work out their tricks, but the smarter option would be to search the island until you find the series of panels tutorialising those symbols you came across.

These puzzles are as varied as the island itself. Many other critics have talked about their enjoyment of those puzzle types that incorporated the environment or a shift in perspective in some way. I am of the same opinion. My favourite areas are the desert temple, the autumn garden, and the treehouses. Each uses the environment in very specific ways, whether that be the glint of the sun, shadow, or using the alternative exits on a puzzle panel to branch new paths. The castle and the buddhist temple have similar tricks to them, but are much shorter areas (or at least they felt shorter). My least favourite area and puzzle type is the marsh and its Tetris blocks. Initially I loved the concept of incorporating the Tetris blocks into line drawing. What soured me was when multiple shapes were introduced. I just couldn’t work out how to draw both. Then returning later I understood that if two shapes are in the same area, they can move around into any number of combinations. To put it simply, I think this rule is bullshit. I think I have such a visceral dislike of this concept because I like to work out puzzles intuitively by playing with them until a solution emerges (sort of giving my non-conscious mind time to parse out the solution as I fiddle around). The more advanced Tetris grids have multiple shapes, and then on top of that, they have blocks that remove sections of the shapes. Now it’s not impossible for a solution to present itself by playing around on a panel with these rules, but it seems that the best way to work out the solution is to start to grid out the possibilities on a separate piece of paper. It’s strange that I’m giving this criticism, because I loved the desert, and some of the more advanced puzzles in that area require you to write down sections of pathway, so you can piece the whole thing together.

Perhaps it has to do with puzzle preference. I know there’s a lot of critics out there that absolutely despised the sound forest. It may be that not everyone has an ear for pitch or the rules were not as apparent, but I loved that area just because it was so different. To compare The Witness to Myst for a second, many who have played that game complain about the underground maze. That puzzle blew my mind because of its reliance on sound, as so few adventure or puzzle games base their puzzles around hearing. I had the same positive reaction to the bamboo forest. Yes, I think some of the later puzzles got a bit silly, but nothing in the sound forest angered me like the Tetris puzzles. Not even the quarry with its negation rules. I actually thought those were pretty clever. I think everyone is going to have the puzzle types they love and the puzzle types they hate, and while there likely will be crossover between players, those likes and dislikes are going to be different for every person. I know a lot of people loved the craziness of the puzzle types inside of the mountain, but by that point in the game I just wanted it to be over. By the mountain, I had come to rely on a walkthrough almost exclusively.

I’ve talked before about walkthrough use, how it’s like a reverse case of diminishing returns. The more you use a walkthrough to help you get through a section of a game you are having trouble with, the easier it is to return to the walkthrough the next time you get stuck. Initially I only used the walkthrough when I knew how the puzzle needed to be solved, but couldn’t figure out the solution for myself, or if I just didn’t like the puzzle type. For the majority of the game the walkthrough was used mainly for the Tetris puzzles. As stated before, I absolutely despised them. They angered me, and I wanted nothing to do with them. Every other use of the walkthrough was a lack of patience with the more advanced puzzles in areas whose rules I understood. By the time I reached the town and the mountain, I just wanted the game to be over, and was using the walkthrough to reach the end. Especially on those pillar puzzles right before the elevator. A wonderful concept, but not being able to view the whole puzzle threw me for a loop (and the slippery mouse controls when drawing lines didn’t help matters too much either).

Now if this was a different puzzle game, I might feel more guilt for having had to resort to a walkthrough. There’s always an element of shame involved with admitting that I did not have the intelligence or more to the point, the patience to figure out a solution out on my own. I know it’s doable too. Remember how I talked about the design of the island invoking the idea of witnessing in the player? I think it plays a similar role in allowing the player to work out the solutions to puzzles. The island is completely open, and you can tackle the areas in any order you wish. I think the idea is that if a section is giving you a difficult time, go somewhere else and work on that for a while. Maybe just wander the island, listen to some audiologs, watch one of the videos, or try and find some of the islands’ hidden puzzles. Eventually you’ll find yourself back at that panel that was causing you grief and you’ll solve it. Heck, you’ll solve it without even trying that hard. Your mind worked out the solution for you while you were busying yourself with something else. By giving yourself the time and a change of pace (or a change in perspective, which is an underlying theme of the game), you’ve come to the solution without thinking about it. It’s almost intuitive. That moment is yours to cherish, and it will likely happen many times.

Early on I played the game this way. I wandered, completing small portions of each section, and coming back to previous sections and understanding what was alluding me before. When I finally came back to the autumn forest or the castle, I was impressed how far into the area I had actually gotten the first time through, and was able to finish up and move onto something else. Maybe that’s why I found the town and mountain annoying and relied on a walkthrough for them. The town is a culmination of everything the game teaches you, but it also has a couple of sections where you think you know what the rules are, and yet you have it all wrong. It tricks you, and only later with some exploration or frustration (or looking up the solution like I did), you’ll see what was going on, and perhaps you’ll appreciate the ingenuity of it.

The mountain is the final area you’ll tackle, so if you do get stuck, by this point, there won’t be much you can do on the island while you’re trying to work out a solution. Yes there are plenty of environmental puzzles, and most won’t have activated all the lasers to open the mountain (as you don’t need to), but there’s a sense that “this is the only way forward” so you will find yourself focused on the one puzzle that’s standing in your way. It diverts from how I think the game is designed, encouraging wandering so your non-conscious mind can work out the problems, enjoying the scenery and all the little secrets that the island has to offer. Again, you can still walk out of the mountain and do this, but it seems counter-intuitive.

Coming back to the autumn forest, the seaside island or the castle later, and seeing how far I’d come on my own gives me greater peace about my own cognitive ability, about playing the game the “right way”, and about future playthroughs. See, I may have absolutely loathed the Tetris puzzles, but who’s to say in the future when I replay the game that I won’t then find these puzzles an entertaining challenge. I know that part of my desire to use a walkthrough was to consistently progress so I could make this video. In the future when I return to the island, there will be no video to make. As I have already completed the game, knowing that the completion of the island is ultimately pointless, I can take my time. I can load up the island, wander around, and enjoy it without worrying about how many puzzle panels I complete or lasers I activate. I can search for the environmental puzzles in my own time when I need a break, or actually try and find most of the audiologs. They’re so small that if a friend hadn’t told me about a couple of them at the entrance to the bamboo forest, I might have never found any of them. I only uncovered two videos as well. There are another 4 to find and watch.

This unfinished business is certainly an aspect of why I want to return, but it is not the whole reason. I want to prove to myself that I can complete the island on my own. And yet, I don’t seem to care if I do or don’t. I just want to experience that feeling again of wandering around, coming back to a panel and suddenly the solution just appears like there was never a puzzle that needed solving. Perhaps the desire to chase that feeling is the wrong way to go about it, but I feel that as long as I am witnessing this desire, I can at least be at peace about it. Similar to how I used a walkthrough to get to the end of a game where the ending does not matter.

Thanks for watching.

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